As Brian Kelly prepares to kickoff fall camp this morning, our rankings get down to the ten best players who’ll likely decide whether or not the Irish achieve their lofty goals in 2015.
The first 15 players we’ve profiled each will play a significant role in determining that future. (Or at least 14 of them.) But as we enter the Top 10, each player listed has the ability to be a game-changer. And each is a critical piece of the puzzle in 2015.
Of our next five players, four are key pieces to the Irish offense. The Irish’s leading returning rusher. The spring’s most intriguing offensive weapon. A finally healthy returning captain, and the man in charge of running the whole unit. Joined by a rising junior who put together a really underrated sophomore season, let’s keep the train rolling as we break into the top ten.
2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS
25. Jerry Tillery, DL
24. Greg Bryant, RB
23. Durham Smythe, TE
22. Matthias Farley, DB
21. Quenton Nelson, LG
20. Nyles Morgan, LB
19. Chris Brown, WR
18. Elijah Shumate, S
17. Corey Robinson, WR
16. Mike McGlinchey, OT
15. Steve Elmer, RG
14. Isaac Rochell, DE
13. Max Redfield, S
12. Joe Schmidt, LB
11. Jarron Jones, DT
10. Malik Zaire (QB, Junior): It’s probably an obvious statement, but no player in these rankings is more important to Notre Dame than Zaire. With the weight of the offense on his shoulders and no safety net at backup, Brian Kelly is all-in with a quarterback who has only played six quarters.
Of course, in those six quarters he managed to beat LSU and unseat Everett Golson, with the two-year starter fleeing for Tallahassee. So while the sample size is small, this certainly feels like the right place for a quarterback to slot in, especially one who beat-out (at this point, whatever rationale Golson used, that’s the only way you can really look at it) our No. 4 player on the last season’s list.
We saw Zaire as a dynamic run threat last season. We saw him make a handful of very nice passes, albeit in limited opportunities. But with an offense filled with high-end skill talent and a very good offensive line, it’s on Zaire to make sure the unit is running at optimal levels.
Highest Ranking: 6th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.
9. C.J. Prosise (WR/RB, Senior): The loss of Greg Bryant for the season was neutralized this spring when Prosise emerged as an intriguing option at running back. And while we won’t know until the games start counting how well Prosise will do at his third position in South Bend, the coaching staff deserves credit for having the foresight to move Prosise this spring, especially when most thought Amir Carlisle’s return to his original position would’ve been an easy move.
With an updated roster coming sooner than later, we’ll see how much weight Prosise added to his already muscular frame. But even if he’s pushing 230 pounds like his head coach said earlier this summer, Prosise is an explosive player with the football, capable of taking it the distance any time he gets a chance.
In Notre Dame’s never-ending question for a hybrid runner/receiver, Prosise might be the best fit we’ve seen in a long time. After leading the team in yards per carry and catch, we’ll maybe even get to see what he can do if he gets a chance to touch the ball ten times a game in 2015.
Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 15th.
8. Nick Martin (C, Grad Student): Martin may have been named a team captain and the undoubted leader of the offensive line last season, but he struggled through an injury plagued 2014, slow to return to full strength after a significant late-season knee injury in 2013.
Martin moved out of the center position after three games, but returned there this spring, leading to the departure of Matt Hegarty. And while Martin may have been surpassed by Ronnie Stanley, who emerged as a national prospect, Martin’s name is still among the elite at the position.
The younger brother will never be the older brother, and putting All-Pro expectations on Nick isn’t fair. But it’s clear he’s no slouch either, and he’ll compete to be one of the top centers in college football. Getting back to that level will be key for the offensive line.
Highest Ranking: 6th. Lowest Ranking: 13th.
7. Cole Luke (CB, Junior): Forced to face a murderer’s row of wide receivers, Luke moved into the starting lineup after KeiVarae Russell’s suspension and stayed there all season, thriving along the way. While there was a rough game in there at the end (USC), he played wonderful football against a long list of receivers who’ll be playing on Sundays.
Luke started all 13 games, tying for the team lead in interceptions with four. He also broke up an astounding 11 passes, chipping in 15 passes defended as well. Moving into his third season, Luke will stay in the starting lineup, now opposite Russell. And while he needs to show that his work last season wasn’t a fluke, he’s got the opportunity to form the best 1-2 corner combo in South Bend since Shane Walton was a consensus All-American starting across from Vontez Duff.
Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 16th.
6. Tarean Folston (RB, Junior): While most of the talk this offseason has been about Prosise or the now ineligble Greg Bryant, Notre Dame’s best running back has been hiding in plain sight. Tarean Folston didn’t rush for 1,000 yards last season. But he rebounded after a slow start to become the lead back wanted to see from the season opener.
Versatile, smooth, quick but possessing power, Folston has all the ingredients to be the best running back of the Kelly era. And with little proven depth behind him, he’ll finally have an open pathway to take charge as a feature back, no longer stuck behind someone like Cam McDaniel.
Folston has had dominant games. But he’s also disappeared. Entering his third season, there’s a need for consistency in his game, and if he’s running behind a talented offensive line, it’ll be demanded.
Highest Ranking: 4th. Lowest Ranking: 7th.
Our 2015 Irish Top 25 panel
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Michael Bryan, One Foot Down
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, NDNation
John Walters, Newsweek